HOW WE SPEND IT IN AIRPORTS
By Joe Brancatelli
January 16, 2014 --I know where you've been lately. Same place as me and every other business traveler. At the airport. Stuck. Waiting out a collection of astonishing delays thanks to the record-breaking nasty weather.
After running nearly 80 percent on-time during the first 11 months of 2013,the nation's airlines plunged to about 70 percent in December. Then it really got bad. During the first ten days of January, Flightstats says the system ran an average of just 58 percent on-time. On January 5 and 6, as many major hub airports battled snow, ice and the Polar Vortex, more than half of all the nation's scheduled flights ran late. And for the 30 days ended last Sunday, FlightStats recorded an astonishing 222,399 delays, an average of about 7,400 daily.
So what did you do while you waited? Many of us undoubtedly spent far too much time in airport clubs. Some of us surely despaired of our flight's departure and scurried to the comfort of nearby hotels. We certainly spent far too many hours slumped at a gate ripping through the music and videos on our tablets, laptops and phones.
Inevitably, however, we will have spent some time interacting with airport shops, restaurants and kiosks. And that sent me scurrying for information about what we do and what we spend while we go to or from (or wait for) our aircraft.
According to the Airport Council International (ACI) of North America, we spent a median of $5.15 on food and beverages each time we visited an airport. That number struck me as extraordinarily low considering the massive upgrade of dining options at most U.S. airports. It's true that $5.15, recorded in 2012, was higher than the $5 spent in 2011, the $4.69 in 2010 and $4.43 in 2009. But $5.15? Hell, a Starbucks grande latte at an airport kiosk will run around that much.
But if airport executives I've talked to lately can be believed, our dining patterns haven't changed much even though they've outfitted their concourses and terminals with fancy restaurants fronted by celebrity chefs, local brewpubs and cocktail bars and even imitation Italian enotecas that sell pricey plates of cured meats and big-dollar bottles of wine.
"Burger and a beer still rules the roost around here," the director of a mid-sized Midwestern airport told me when I asked about how his relatively gentrified chef-fronted bistro was faring.
"Our steakhouse is always empty," said a West Coast airport executive, who then complained that $35 slabs of beef aren't what travelers want or expect from an airport repast.
"You hate yourself later, but you end up ducking into McDonald's for fries because you think the delay won't last long," explained a third.
This isn't to say the fancier places aren't doing well enough or that the charming bakeries and sandwich shops that have opened at Los Angeles International or the bespoke pizza and burger joints at New York's LaGuardia Airport are suffering. It's just that the numbers prove fairly convincingly that we talk a better food and beverage game than we live when we're stuck at the airport.
We apparently don't spend as much as we think at airport newsstands, gift shops and retail outlets, either. The ACI said the median spend per passenger was $3.31 in 2012 (compared to $2.72 in 2009), a pretty slim number when you consider a copy of Forbes sells for 5.99 and The New Yorker commands $6.99 for all those wonderfully diverting cartoons. For that matter, even the ever-shrinking USA Today costs two bucks a pop if you pick one up at an airport newsstand. And have you seen what they charge for a half-liter bottle of water that costs about 20 cents at a warehouse club?
One place where we are spending money, however, is at those automated kiosks that dispense all manner of goods you never thought you'd see at an airport. According to the ACI, half the nation's airports now have robo-retailers and they rack up an average of $101,770 per unit. That probably explains why those blue Best Buy units are ubiquitous now and everyone from Canadian clothing retailers to prepaid mobile phone vendors are getting into the automated kiosk game. So much for our bemoaning the lack of human contact, eh?
One heartening trend? The homogenization of airport retail seems to be flagging just a bit. More than 40 percent of retail and food and beverage sales at airports are generated by national chains. But while we're waiting out a flight delay, we're more willing than ever before to go local. As much as 36 percent of airport food and beverage sales are racked up at local and regional brands, claims the ACI.
And I guess we can take some comfort that our waiting time is changing the financial game for the nation's airports. Back in the day, airports relied almost totally on airlines and aircraft landing fees to make their budgets work. Today, not so much. In fact, about 45 percent of $16.8 billion in revenue generated by the nation's airports now come directly from us. Besides the obvious non-airline revenue streams (60 percent from rental cars, parking and airport hotels), our food and beverage spending accounts for 7 percent and retail sales (including duty free) account for 8 percent.
Does any of this really matter? Probably not too much in the grand scheme of things. But after a couple of months of dreary, dreadful weather and an onslaught of record-shattering delays, it's nice to know what we're doing when we're not blankly staring at the departure board hoping that the dreaded red "cancelled" isn't posted next to our flight.
Besides, now you know what I'm doing while I'm waiting out a delay. I'm the guy looking over your shoulder and asking you what you just ordered for lunch and whether your company reimburses the expense of your annual airport club membership.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.